Monday, February 28, 2011

Symbol: Insanity

In last week’s Night Below session, you could tell things had gotten really high level. The party continued the assault on the Kuo Toa Priest King’s palace, and took on the king (a 12th level fighter/cleric), the last Illithid in the city (as far as the players knew), a couple of the kings 10th level fighter guards (complete with good armor and magical great swords), and a handful of 5th level “whips” (fighter/thieves). The main temple of Blipdoolpoolp might have been a better strategy, in that the destruction of the statue in that place would reduce all Kuo Toa priests in power, including the king. But the decision was settled on to take on the palace because the Illithid there bore the Crown of Derro Domination. And they managed to get their hands on it, in addition to fairly handily take care of the royal guards and the king.

A really high level spell was encountered in the king’s chamber, a Symbol of Insanity that the king inscribed upon the floor of the center of the room to hopefully catching any foolish enough to charge right in. Well, Vaidno the Bard was so foolish (actually, a pretty brave character who comes off these days more like an acrobatic fighter), and he tripped up the symbol.

What a powerful spell this is. See, the king had the spell per the module, and I hadn’t really studied on it significantly. So when it was set off and I looked up the save, it said “special.” The Symbol spells have a variety of affects, but it turns out in the case of this one there is no save. On the spot I could not really figure it out, and we even looked in the DM guide. The only indication of save is in the Confusion spell that you are directed to for rolling on a table for affect (run away, fight your friends, etc). That spell gives a save -2. Anyway, not wanting to burn the player with a permanent spell that only a Wish or Heal spell will cure (ironically, it was a player complaint that kept Terry from running two characters some time back, depriving the party of high level hobbit cleric Kayla, who was the only character that could provide a Heal spell), I decided to give that save as per confusion. “Surviveno” made the save, as usual.

Was it wrong to not go by the book and mess up this character, effectvly taking him out of the game for the final session of the campaign? Well, I wasn’t sure of the spell, and basically decided it was better to decide in favor of the character in case there was some addendum to this spell that we later would find, after Vaidno had already ran screaming into the Underdark or was dispatched by the others for attacking them.

In all honest, I know we are dealing with high level spells, and some of them can just mess you up, saving throw or not. But a spell that a character would just step on and be really messed up with no kind of save seems kind of bogus to me. The character could easily have missed his save and been jacked-up anyway. It seems much more exciting to make a save of some kind. A freaking fighting chance.

Anyway, I’m going to have to take the time to better understand these higher level mess-you-up spells for the next session for sure, so I can decide in advance if I want to nerf them or not.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Love and the Monster Manual

Look at it now, and the first edition of the Monster Manual doesn’t look like much on the outside. Looking at it as an adult, it seems like a 12 year old painted the cover in elementary school art class.

But as a kid in the late 70’s, it was a wonder to behold. After having only the little brown books and various cheapie Judges Guild items, the bold colors of the MM cover really hit you over the head. And showing monsters above and underground told you almost all you needed to know about D&D; fighting beasties in the wilderness and in the dungeon.

And all those monster inside; boy, I must have poured through that book day and night for a year after getting it. For future fanboys like me, the MM was the first gateway drug to Greek Mythos. Hydra, Gorgons, hippogriffs, and all that lot right out of Bulfinch’s. And leave us not mention the Tolkien based stuff, including no less than three types of hobbit!

Man, that first copy of the MM got a lot of use, and still does. I still get a chill looking at the artwork, especially the Trampier stuff.

And one night years later, as a confused and sensitive mid-teen, the Monster Manual got me through my first real hard night. After a brutal dumping by a girlfriend at a Sci Fi con near LAX, I went home that Sunday night and was heartbroken. I could not sleep and had no idea how I would make it through the night.

I had a project in mind before that, which was doing the old Tunnels and Trolls classic Monsters! Monsters! But for 1st edition AD&D. So I broke out the MM and a notebook, and started to work out how each and every intelligent creature in the book could be used as a player character. Assigning of classes and class combinations, bonus and minus to stat blocks, and abilities gained through level progression. To this day it is the most work I have ever done on gaming material in a single sitting. And eventually I got to run that game. One player ran a young Frost Giant, another a Carnivorous ape, and things like that. They took a village apart that session, and the atrocities committed were horrendous. Half that party died when they tried to attack an actual walled city. The hail of arrows put an end to their madness.

And a happy ending too. Me and my ex-girlfriend reconnected for a time not long after that lonely night. There is always hope, but you just gotta get through the pain so you can feel good again. Thanks to the Monster Manual, I got through that dark night of the soul and came out smiling on the other end. Thanks, MM! I’m not sure my heart even has nerve endings anymore, but it’s nice to know you are there if I ever had to stay up all night again simmering in my own juices.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dark Shadows

Since I got Netflix awhile back, I’ve been catching up on some of my favorite childhood shows that are available on the instant play feature. So on some nights since the holidays I’ve been watching a lot of The Rockford Files and Kolchak:The Night Stalker.

But with me having Tegel Manor on the mind a lot in the last few months, and possibly doing a sort of sequel to that great module for my OD&D games, I remember that unique soap opera from the 60’s called Dark Shadows.

Dark Shadows’ original show story bible had no supernatural elements, despite being mostly set in a spooky old mansion on the New England coast. Besides the unusual setting, Dark Shadows featured the typical romantic and dramatic subplots of the usual daytime soap opera. Some six months into its run the show introduced the supernatural by having characters encounter ghosts. But when flagging ratings threatened to end the series, the character of Barnabas Collins was introduced. A polite and unflappable man who claimed to be a lost cousin of the Collins family living in the Collinswood mansion, Barnabas was actually a 200 year old vampire, released from a local tomb by a trouble making drifter.

I was but an infant during the show’s original run, but as a kid I discovered the it through reruns on UHF, and loved it. Flash forward to the 90’s, I had another chance to see a couple of episodes, and was bored as hell. But inspired to check it out again now, I’ve watched several of the first Barnabas episodes and I’m loving it.

For one thing, the frequent stock footage of Collinswood outside at night and day looks just like the outline of Tegel Manor! And the interiors of Collinswood and the dilapidated old house next door practically screams “Tegel!” Even Barnabas’ speech early on describing the creation of Collinswood from local lumber and imported stone seems to be a description of the building of the great house of Tegel. This is super inspiring stuff for Tegel adventuring.

Many scenes so far also take place at the ramshackle but cozy seaside tavern The Blue Whale. The bar has its own sort of haunting moodiness, but that is broken up by the constant Beatnik music in the background and the surprisingly lovely 60’s chicks, both featured actresses and background extras, enjoying their cocktails the way the 60’s folk seemed to love to do.

The episodes are only 20 minutes long, and last night I actually watched around four of them back to back for mood as I was working on my Tegel Manor material. This is going to be a stormy weekend in Southern California, so I plan to watch a lot of DS. I understand that in upcoming episodes there will be homage’s to werewolves, Frankenstein, and even Rider’s “She.” Time travel, parallel universes, and “The Levianthans,” old dark gods in the HP Lovecraft mold, are going to be featured as well.

If you’ve never seen Dark Shadows, do yourself a favor and check it out. Just be sure to start with the first Barnabas episodes. Otherwise you are just watching a soap opera set in and old house. Yawn.

Note: Tim Burton is working on a Dark Shadows film this very minute, with Johnny Depp as Barnabas. I really don’t want to see a campy, Cirque De Soliel trannyfest that Burton might make of it, and I am tired as hell of Johnny Depp. The one saving grace is apparently Depp has been a fan of the show since childhood, so hopefully that will add something special to his portrayal of the iconic vampire.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Verisimilitude, Dude

OK, I’ll admit that although I was always an excellent reader, “Verisimilitude” is a word I was fairly unfamiliar with until my return to gaming the other year. I’m pretty sure I read James at Grognardia using the word first in relation to gaming, and I’ve been using it ever since. A big word I have used for a long time in relation to gaming is “Gravitas.” I’ve known that big word for at least a decade (but my source was dubious; I think Howard Stern and his crew were goofing on a sound bite of Keiffer Sutherland saying that was his favorite word. I then looked it up). I’ll say something that sounds profound such as “I like my game world to have a certain amount of gravitas.”

But verisimilitude is what I say now. Me like that big world. The big “V” word is sort of philosophical in nature, so it can be expressed to mean a variety of related things. Officially, it is a philosophical concept that denotes amounts of truth or degrees of error. Articulating what it takes for one false theory to be closer to the truth than another false theory.

In games terms, it’s about doing what you can for your game world to feel real in terms of it’s own qualities. Back in the day all you could say (unless you were an encyclopedia of big brain words like Gary Gygax seemed to be) was “I want my game to be realistic” followed by boos and jeers from your gaming fellows who chided sarcastically (in the Comic Book Guys voice) “It’s a fantasy game man. Fantasy isn’t supposed to be realistic.”

Bullshit. If you just want to have your world be no more than a tavern, a supply shop, and a dungeon, or you are just playing the original Chainmail wargame, then fine. That is sort of how I approach my White Box games. But even then, I cannot help but want things to feel as real as possible, even in a dungeon as mythic underworld. Just go all wacky baccy like Arduin Grimoire or The City State of The Invincible Overlord, then you are getting closer to a fantasy world like Alice’s Wonderland, or The Beatles Pepperland. Cool fantasy worlds, but not one’s I want to seriously run a character in.

I know it is all ultimately silly fantasy. But to make my world feel like it has a little weight to it for a non-existent thing, I like to have a little versimilitude-itude. See that? I took a big word and the word “attitude” and made my own cool word. You can use it if ye like.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Don’t rush the campaign, bro

After several years without so much as a cold (good times wherein I got to use almost all of my sick days for fun things), I got hit hard by this flu that is going around late last week, and am still trying to shake off its evil grip. So last night instead of getting back into the heat of things with the assault on The City of The Glass Pool, I had Big Ben do a session of his elf-centric campaign since I wasn’t really feeling on-point. In a couple of weeks we’ll get back to my campaign, but this has given me a chance to rethink some things about how I am letting myself feel about my now high-level campaign.

In the last few months I feel I have been thinking a bit too feverishly about finishing the current Night Below campaign, which has been going on strong for around two and a half years now (the actual underground portion being about two years). I have enjoyed the epic nature of the adventure, but I think I have let my desire to run other things make me too obsessed with the end of this thing. I keep saying “two or so games to go,” but the fact is that I don’t really know how much more there is too do. The party has taken care of one or two goals that are required to cause the breakdown of the Kuo Toan society in TCOTGP, but there are still a couple of big things to be accomplished to bring it all home. Plus, who knows what other plans the party might have in terms of some looting and other activities they might engage in after the fall of the nasty little city. And of course a long campaign like this will require at least a full session of epilogue for the characters after all is said and done (the return to the surface world, personal affairs, etc). So although I judge that the immediate adventure should take 2-4 more sessions, I’m not going to rush it anymore.

The fact is I’m having much more fun running for higher level characters than I thought it would. It’s been many a harvest moon since I did regular games for characters over 7th level. I’m usually ending a campaign after about a year and moving on to do new characters. Not that the higher characters careers end or anything like that; but their presence in the game world in the past has often been relegated to cameos.

So, even thought I will be starting some Knights of the Old Republic sometime in the next couple of months (the gang seems to have come up with some interesting characters for that – most of them have downloaded PDF’s of the rules). I’m going to go ahead and let book 2 of NB play out, without any sort of imposed ending by me. Does this mean I’ll go right into them going into the lowest depths and into The Sunless Sea of book 3 of Night Below right away? Maybe not. Book 3 ends in an assault on an evil underground city as well. So I think I may have some mods to make, and will probably want some time to pass so the players don’t get bored. Judging from my online research on NB, the majority of campaigns barely make it to the end of book 2 before all involved are fed-up.

But it has been a fun campaign, challenging and rewarding to run, so I’m not going to be in such a rush to put a stopper in it any more. Let it go where it goes.